Archbishop of Los Angels reflects on faith in the brave new world of America
On Tuesday, 11 October , Archbishop José Horacio Gomez of Los Angeles reflected on the American experience and Hispanic culture during an inaugural speech at Loyola Marymount University in California. The following are excerpts from the Archbishop's address.
My brothers and sisters, Pope Paul VI said that the task of evangelizing all people is the essential mission and deepest identity of the Church. "She exists to evangelize", he said. And what he said about the Church is true for every one of us who belongs to the Church. Now, in order to carry out our mission of evangelization, we always have to be trying to understand what God is saying to his Church in the particular historical moment we are living in. That's what the Second Vatican Council meant when it said the Church has to study the "signs of the times" and interpret them in light of the Gospel.
I believe the great sign of our times is what our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has called "the eclipse of the sense of God". In part, this is the result of an aggressive project by elite groups to radically secularize and "de-Christianize" American culture — to drive God to the margins of our society and our lives.
The fact is, that after only 600 years, the faith that the missionaries brought to our lands is fading. More and more of our brothers and sisters throughout the Americas are living as if they have no need for God — as if he doesn't even exist. And as our sense of God diminishes, we are becoming more and more a people who have lost our sense of the sanctity, meaning and purpose of human life.
America risks becoming a land that no longer knows Jesus Christ, a reality that has already happened in many of the once-Christian nations in the West. That's why it seems to me that the new evangelization of America must be our only task for Hispanic theology and ministry — and indeed our only task for all theology and ministry in our Church.
Everything we do must be measured by what it contributes or does not contribute to proclaiming Jesus Christ to the men and women of our day. We all need to see ourselves as missionaries to the brave new world of America and the Americas. We need that same zeal for souls that those first missionaries had. When you read their letters, it's amazing. They knew they were leaving their homes and never coming back. They were prepared to suffer any hardship to proclaim Christ.
I think of one of my favorites, the Franciscan Antonio Margil. He was ordained a priest in Spain at 24, and he left his home forever in 1683. He told his mother he was going to the New World because "millions of souls are lost for want of priests to dispel the darkness of unbelief". They called him the "Flying Padre"because he would walk barefoot — forty or fifty miles a day — carrying only a walking stick, his breviary and a small kit for saying Holy Mass. For more than half a century he evangelized all over the Americas. He established churches in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Louisiana and Texas.
We need that same energy and drive at every level of our Church today. In our ministry, in our theology, we need to always be thinking about how to make Christ real in people's lives and how to show them the path to God. I also think our mission today requires a new spiritual and religious understanding of America's history — and a new understanding of the ways our history intersects with the first evangelization of Mexico and the other lands of the Americas, the Nueva España.
In his last book, written the year he died, Bl. John Paul II said: "The history of all nations is called to take its place in the history of salvation". What Bl. John Paul meant is that every nation is related in some mysterious way to the mission that Christ gave to his Church. The mission of preaching salvation to all nations and creating one family of God from out of all the peoples of the earth.
We see this very clearly in American history. American exists as the product of the Christian mission. That's not a pious wish. It is historical fact. The first "patents" issued to explore the New World all speak of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. For instance, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón received a patent in 1532 to explore the coast of Florida. The patent read: "The principal intent in the discovery of new lands is that the inhabitants and the natives thereof ... may be brought to understand the truth of our holy Catholic faith, that they may ... become Christians and be saved".
Sadly, we know that many of the colonizers came, not as Christians but as conquerors, their hearts filled with greed and sinful ambitions. Their cruelty and the suffering of their victims — generations of victims and atrocities — are well documented and condemned in our theologies and history.
I think now it is time for us in our theology and ministry to recover the deeper meaning of our history — in the true Christian spirit that animated the Church's mission to the New World. We need to study everything about this period with prayer. We need to enter into the missionary heart and soul of the Age of Discovery. We need to recover the sense of awe and possibility that inspired the first evangelization of our continents. In our new evangelization, we need to tell the story of the "greater America". We need to help our neighbors see that there is more to our history than they think they know.
I am convinced that one of our biggest problems today is that America has lost her national "story". We have lost the sense of who we are as a people and who we are called to be.
The truth is this: America is actually the historical product of at least three very different Christian "missions" — the mission of the English Puritans and the Catholic missions of Spain and France. That means that as Americans, we are children of both the Protestant Reformation that prevailed in places like England and also children of the Catholic renewal or the Counter-Reformation, centered in Spain and Rome. It is true historically, that the Protestant spirit came to inform America's political, economic and cultural institutions, while Catholics for many years faced discrimination in different forms.
But today the broad Christian consensus that once underwrote the institutions and assumptions of American life has collapsed. And in the face of widespread religious indifferentism and elite disdain for religion, I believe it is more necessary than ever that we recover the spiritual legacy of our country's Catholic "founders".
There is something powerful in remembering that before this country had a name — long before there was a Washington or a Wall Street — the missionaries were celebrating the Mass here and preaching the Gospel in the Spanish tongue.
There is something powerful in knowing that before the Mayflower and before America's War of Independence, the blood of our Hispanic Catholic martyrs was being poured out as the seed of our American Church.
To conclude and summarize my thoughts: My first point is that the mission of the Church in our day must be the new evangelization of America. And Hispanic Catholics are called to be spiritual and moral leaders in this new evangelization.
My second point is that in this great missionary project we need to draw more deeply from the wells of the missionary experience and theology of America's "first evangelization". We need to study and preach "the greater America" — America in light of the Christian mission to the Americas, from the top of what is now Canada to the ends of South America and across to the Caribbean.
And my final point is that I believe America needs our witness — as Hispanics and as Catholics. All of us in our Church are children of the Hispanic mission to America. And America needs our witness, now more than ever, in order to understand her national character and place in history. Especially her place in God's plan for history. America needs our Hispanic Catholic witness for the renewal of her national soul.
To the beautiful Puritan idea of America as the "city upon a hill", we need to propose in our evangelization a beautiful Hispanic-Catholic vision of America as El Camino Real, the King's Highway. Historically we know that the chain of missions along El Camino Real is part of the legacy that Bl. Junipero Serra gave us here in California. But we can see this also as a beautiful metaphor for a Hispanic-Catholic vision of mission, theology and ministry.
El Camino Real tells us that we are pilgrims in our Christian lives, immigrant missionaries along the road to our Father's house, the Kingdom of God. Strangers with no lasting city, who know that our true home is in heaven. This image tells us that we are called to meet our neighbors — whoever they are and wherever we find them along the way. We are called to accompany them, to talk to them of Jesus and his salvation. To call them to conversion and communion. This image also tells us that we are called to be a light to the world and to scatter every darkness. As the first missionaries did, in our evangelization we need to cry out and defend the sanctity of the human person and the sanctity of marriage and the family — against every form of oppression and against every pagan ideal.